Awesome Bass Lines

If I could play an instrument, it would definitely be bass guitar. There’s just something fantastic about the deep, rich tones, and its function of outlining the melody and propelling the beat is one that appeals to me: not so flashy, but intrinsic to the music. I’ve said before that Paul McCartney is my bass-playing hero (the acclaim of Jack Bruce I just don’t quite get), but my self-image-as-musician leans more towards Peter Hook, in his Joy Division days. Played loud, with a wonderful sonorousness and a gravity and seriousness which is rare in the bass world (top bassists tend towards getting funky, with syncopation and inflection), Hook somehow encapsulates much that I find admirable in musicianship. His bass line in “Transmission” (a song memorably described as “a cold blue laser light of power”) is just fantastic – fluid yet chilly, supple yet muscular, prominent yet not flashy, propulsive yet melodic.

Paul McCartney, as in so many areas, doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves. Paul the balladeer, Paul the sap, play-it-safe Paul, Paul the crap Beatle – bullshit.  Paul was – is – an incredible musician, and the development of his bass playing over the course of the Beatle canon is an amazing journey. I would argue that his apotheosis is in “Rain”, the B-side (the fucking B-side! One of the finest songs ever, confined to a B-side! It’s not even on 62-66, thought it gets an outing on Past Masters vol. 2) to “Paperback Writer”. While “Rain” is very much a John song (Lennon’s singing sets the stage for everything Liam Gallagher has ever done in his entire life), Macca’s bass is probably the most prominent ingredient of an incredibly heady mix, with some dazzling syncopation and interplay with Ringo; it’s probably also Ringo’s finest hour – whoever tells you Ringo can’t drum, punch them in the face. Twice.

Though punk, of course, was avowedly back-to-basics, post-punk opened up many fascinating possibilities. Bands like Gang Of Four, Public Image, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Fall, The Cure, Joy Division of course, Wire, even Throbbing Gristle – the sense of a door opening for experimentation is unmistakable. Nowadays more often cited simply as an influence of Franz Ferdinand, Gang Of Four were one of the most interesting post-punk bands, even if their influence was short-lived. (I’d much rather listen to them than The Cure, who seem to me to rip off early PiL and Siouxsie). The song “Ether” opens their seminal album Entertainment, and the bass playing on it is military-precise, yet oddly funky – in a very white-guy sense.

Some hate The Stranglers, and with good reason, but I rather relish their ferocious belligerence and caustic sexism. Let’s just enjoy the famous bassline to “Peaches” and not think too hard about what they’re saying 🙂

Jah Wobble has maybe the single best bass sound in rock music. His time in Public Image Limited was short, but coincided with nearly all their best work. Relish the epic depth, the moronic simplicity!

But this one is amazing, too. Great playing, without being wanky: just serving the song.

Reggae, of course, is based on riddim, with bass very much to the fore. Aston Barret, bassist in the Wailers, created many brilliantly simple bass lines. “Stir It Up” is a lovely example of getting three notes and playing them just right.

While the deep groove of “Natural Mystic” is more like dub: smoky and mysterious; perfect for the song.

Other quality bass lines –

Herbie Flowers in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”

Paul Simonon in The Clash’s “The Guns Of Brixton”

Geezer Butler in Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”

Captain Sensible in The Damned’s “I Feel Alright”

John Entwhilstle in The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”

Andy Rourke in The Smiths’ “This Charming Man”

Adam Clayton in U2’s “Silver And Gold”

John Deacon in “Dragon Attack” and “Another One Bites The Dust” (consecutive songs on The Game, no less!)

Reni in The Stone Roses’ “Made Of Stone”

Feel free to suggest more!


15 thoughts on “Awesome Bass Lines

  1. There are so many ….

    Wendell Marshall in ‘Stand by Me’
    Roger Waters in Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’
    Geddy Lee in Rush’s ‘YYZ’
    Chris Wolstenholme in Muse’s ‘Hysteria’

    I wanna go home and play my bass now!

  2. Okay, I’ll play.
    James Jameson. Jack Johnson LP by Miles Davis.

    And I don’t need the youtube Bob Marley as I caught him and the classic line-up at the peak of their power. Free, and with a weapons grade spliff to gather the atmospherics. Still have the ticket stub. Gate 6 here.

    Jack Bruce played six stringed base in an effortless manner.

    And for a tag team, it was Entwhistle and Moon.

  3. I happened upon this blog while looking for some inspiration on this topic, because I’d been planning to do a similar post. And I find the inescapable Ruby has got here before me!

    I confess to being a little intimidated now, because your musical knowledge and range of reference is far beyond mine. The late ’70s/early ’80s was a bit of a black hole for me musically – largely, I suspect, because I was getting most of my exposure to contemporary music (mostly reluctantly!) from my much older brother, and he moved out round about then; also, I suppose, I was a bit preoccupied with exams at school.

    I love most of these choices – Jah Wobble, Aston Barrett, Jean-Jacques Burnel. And you could have had almost anything by Cream or The Who.

    However, my gestating selection is perhaps characterised more by irresistibly catchy basslines than by the quality of the playing (although it’s difficult to disentangle the two). I liked your nomination of Dragon Attack, which I think I’d take over Another One Bites The Dust just because it’s not so over-familiar; though it is also faster and more complex. I like Ruby’s suggestion of Stand By Me too; that’s definitely in the frame. Who played bass with Billy Idol and Steve Stevens back in the ’80s? Several of their hits come to mind, but I guess White Wedding has to be the leading contender. I think I’d pick The Cure’s Love Cats as well. And there’s a Thomas Dolby track I really like, a cover of I Scare Myself, which has this tremendous slow and mellow bassline (but it’s so precise and so gut-thumpingly DEEP I suspect it was engineered through a synthesiser). Dolby’s The Ability To Swing could also be in with a shout. It would be nice to have something by Mick Fleetwood too – probably the extended instrumental section in The Chain. There’s some great bass on Paul Simon’s Graceland album too, particularly that little solo flourish in You Can Call Me Al. Wikipedia tells me that was played by a Sowetan musician called Bakithi Kumalo.

    But really, I think the hookiest of all basslines – maybe doesn’t take that much to play, but by god it gets the job done – is the one in Peggy Lee’s classic version of Fever. I gather her bass player on that – who introduced the song to her – was called Max Bennett.

    • Hmm, I don’t remember too many good basslines from The Cure *runs away to listen to them*

      Dead right about Graceland and “The Chain” (lots of good ones in Rumours as a whole, by, ahem, John McVie 🙂 ) I have a cheerful prejudice against Cream though, so I’ll pass that by…

  4. D’oh! When mentioning The Chain above, I should have said John McVie, of course; but Fleetwood/McVie is another of those rhythm combos who just fuse into one!

    I’m remembering how many damn good basslines The Cure have, starting to think Close To Me would be an even stronger pick.

  5. I have always rated Paul McCartney’s bass playing on the Beatles’ Dear Prudence as one of the best things about the song. It has a soft hypnotic massaging quality which perfectly compliments the thin guitar sound and John’s sharp vocal.

    Another bass line which makes a track must be Adam Clayton on Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The beginning of the track prepares the ground beautifully for the start of the bass at 00:20.

    • Macca has so many good basslines (much of his work on Abbey Road is particularly awesome), but you’re right, “Dear Prudence” is a cracker. (But “thin” guitar sound? Mesmeric, I’d call it!).

      Clayton also has numberous good ones. “Lemon” and “Babyface” from Zooropa, “New Year’s Day”, “With Or Without You”… It’s impossible to fit in all the good ones, of course! I mentioned “Silver and Gold” because I love the way it carries the melody while The Edge is more rhythmic: quite a post-punk thing to do!

  6. I had a moment of epiphany in the bar the other night (this happens to me quite a lot), a realisation attained independently but almost simultaneously by one of my great blog friends: the clear “winner” in this field ought to be… almost anything ever played by Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn of Booker T. and the M.G.’s.

    I was discussing this question with my favourite barman when Soul Man happened to come up on the playlist, and we both went, “Oh yeah, of course; game over.”

    • I think you might be right!! Game over, man, game over!

      I think this probably calls for a supplementary post or three looking at everyone I missed out. Flea, for example; John Paul Jones, Krist Novoselic has a few great ones, Kim Gordon, Roger Waters, The Ox; hell, I might even throw in Mike Mills, just for the crack.

  7. The Duck takes the prize for earworm grooves, but… if we’re looking at sheer bloody virtuosity, and within the rock genre, why has no-one mentioned Billy Sheehan yet?

    I discovered him through the Dave Lee Roth solo stuff in the ’80s, and he started me trying to listen to bass players over the rest of the music (though I’ve never done that much, or become very good at it!). I think I read in Guitar Player magazine that he’d taught himself how to play mostly by watching videos of Hendrix (so, transposing from guitar to bass, and from left to right-handed?!). Awesome musician.

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